If I told you that Quentin Tarantino, the master of dialogue, on-screen violence and epic cinematic twists had made a movie that celebrates life over death, would you believe me? After all, death has always been Tarantino’s omnipresent fixation. Death, be it in the form of revenge (Kill Bill, Django Unchained) or a mere accident, product of unfortunate circumstances (Pulp Fiction’s ”I shot Marvin in the face!”, Inglourious Basterds’ bar scene) has always played a prominent role in Tarantino’s filmography. His stories usually begin and end in death. A vicious cycle that has bugged me as a viewer numerous times as I always wished that he’d eventually choose a different path.
Tarantino, despite loving his characters and treating them like his own children, has been known for being ruthless to them. It’s why we watch his movies. Because we love that thrill of uncertainty of who’s up next on the chopping block.
And that’s why his latest film was a pleasant and much needed departure from that particular element of Quentin’s vision. And perhaps that is also why Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is arguably Tarantino’s best film in years. For the first time we see the provocative writer-director steer clear of most of the tropes seen in his latter films and go into fairly unfamiliar territory. What follows is a very poetic depiction of a time and place that most of us had forgot all about, or better yet, had never entered before.
Critics have labelled Once Upon a Time as ”Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood” which is undoubtedly a right conclusion, but as I came home from the movie I found myself thinking more and more about what the main subject matter of the movie really is. In order to find the answer I was looking for I thought about the key to any Tarantino film: the characters that inhabit the world.
The first thing that popped into my head was the sequence where Sharon Tate (played by an excellent Margot Robbie), the symbol of a new wave in Hollywood of youth, controversies and thought-provoking attitude in the face of different current affairs including the Vietnam War, America’s grueling fight against Communism and the hippie revolution, sneaks into a theater to watch her own performance in The Wrecking Crew (1969). The young starlet sits in the front row overwhelmed by the sight of her own face up on the big screen, smiling at the sound of the audience’s reactions. It is in that sequence that Tarantino serves us the film’s theme on a silver platter: life. Here is Sharon Tate, actress, activist, model and wife to Roman Polanski, whose name has become synonymous with the Charles Manson murders. Most of us know the name due to the tragic circumstances of her premature death at the hands of a group of fanatics, sensationalized in countless documentaries and reports over the years, subject to speculations and needless conspiracy theories. Sharon Tate is synonymous with death then, in its cruelest, senseless and most terrifying form. Yet we see her live and breathe. We see her sit in a theater and giggle like a little school girl at the sound of the audience’s clapping. We see Tate herself behave like a regular audience member, laughing at her own character’s shenanigans and clapping in excitement as the screening comes to an end.
Because as much as Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is about the dynamic duo of DiCaprio and Pitt; DiCaprio’s struggling actor named Rick Dalton desperately trying to maintain his career afloat and his stuntman (Pitt) carelessly roaming the streets of LA in search of new work opportunities; the film is just as much about paying tribute to the life of a woman whose legacy is centered around her death and the rather despicable coverage of it in the media spanning half a century.
Tarantino is thus setting the record straight, reminding us that despite life being potentially more difficult than death, what we do in life and how we live it should echo above the way we leave this world. There was more to Sharon Tate than just her gruesome murder: she was soulful, she had dreams like anyone of us, she had loves and like us, she made mistakes and lived with them. Charles Bukowski once wrote, ”You can’t beat death, but you can beat death in life,” and that is the case for Sharon’s portrayal in Tarantino’s latest.
Going into more detail would spoil the fun of the movie and would certainly go against everything that Tarantino has preached over the years. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen and deserves to be seen just to remind ourselves how beautiful life can be and how sometimes blissful it is to not know what is waiting around the corner.
As the European release of Tarantino’s latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, looms over us during these warm summer days, and as the writer-director himself has been generously handing out interviews left and right stating that this may very well be his last cinematic work (it is no secret that Tarantino had always wanted to limit himself to ten features, retire and dedicate the rest of his life to writing about film and for theater), I began reflecting on what I will miss the most about one of the most unique voices to grace the silver screen in the last thirty years. The answer in itself surprised me. As I sat down and rewatched for the sixth time my personal favorite of his, Jackie Brown from 1997, I realized how profoundly Tarantino’s work has resonated with me and my peers for different reasons.
First thing that pops to mind when one thinks of QT is blood. Lots of it. Blood, action and the endless, perfectly colorful dialogue that elevates his movies from simple entertainment to something much more special. Something that has a distinctive ring to it that many have tried and still try to this day to emulate. Yet, nobody has ever come close to perfecting it the way Tarantino has done over the last few years, especially in his recent dialogue-heavy Hateful Eight, where eighty percent of the movie takes place within the confines of one single location, turning the movie into something almost identical to a theater play.
But… blood and dialogue do not work unless you have characters that make you care about those two elements. If you do not care about a character, then his death will not affect you. At the same time, if you do not find the character itself interesting, then why should you care what she or he has to say? That’s what I’ll miss most about Quentin: his characters, and the world they inhabit.
Jackie Brown may be Tarantino’s least popular film mainly due to the fact that people like to label it as the least Tarantino film the writer-director has made to date. After all it’s QT’s only adaptation (from Elmore Leonard’s crime novel, Rum Punch), how can the characters be his? It seems like a tricky question to answer, yet every time I watch Jackie Brown I find myself completely sucked into a world that can only be described as a world out of Tarantino’s mind. In fact, if a first time viewer were to ask me which Tarantino film he should start from, I would immediately point to Jackie Brown. Not because it’s hip or because I want to be a snob in not recommending the likes of his more popular works such as Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill, but because I truly believe that the essence of what makes a QT movie so special and vibrant can be found in his 1997 vehicle, where each quality of his is on full display.
Yes, the film can feel slightly constrained when compared to his other movies, perhaps due to the respect Tarantino wanted to show to the source material since there is almost no action involved, little to no blood and zero inaccurate historical reconstructions. You will not find Hitler’s head popping off here, nor will you have to sit through Biblical lines recited by the one and only Samuel L. Jackson as he prepares to execute his next victim, nor will you need to worry about watching characters blow each other to pieces like in Reservoir Dogs and Django Unchained. Instead, what you will get is exactly what Tarantino considers to be his favorite kind of movie, namely what he calls ”the hang-out” movie.
Characters are the true obsession for QT. By now everyone knows that you do not improvise lines in a Tarantino film as every single line that is on the page has the purpose to support the character speaking those lines. Every line, every monologue or speech is meticulously planned out according to the character’s backstory that only Tarantino himself is aware of. Before ever setting pen to paper, Tarantino envisions each character and the character’s place in what fans like to call Tarantino’s universe. In Jackie Brown, as stated before, this universe is not so clear as it is still Elmore Leonard’s territory. But Tarantino does a brilliant job of merging the two worlds together.
The titular Jackie, played by Pam Grier, was in fact a white chick in the novel. Her storyline and motivations somewhat different from the cinematic middle-aged black woman, once the most beautiful girl on the block, now a tired, heartbroken flight attendant of Cabo airlines, a regular victim of unfriendly circumstances and a simple pawn in the hands of a pimp and arms dealer (Samuel L. Jackson). Jackie is, more than anything else, the defining creation of Tarantino, who puts the novel aside and decides to empower the unlikeliest of protagonists, turning Jackie into a smart con artist, ready to do anything in order to get her revenge on the ones that set out to hurt her. However, unlike Uma Thurman’s sword-swinging Widow from Kill Bill, and well before Melanie Laurent’s ambitious Shoshanna from Inglourious Basterds, she relies on wit rather than physical talent and resilience to reach her objective.
In Django Unchained Tarantino took the chains off a slave’s feet and handed him a rifle to blow the heads off of those that tried to unjustly exert their power over him and his family. In Jackie Brown Tarantino goes against all conventions and gives Pam Grier, the queen of 70s blaxploitation cinema whose stardom had faded away as cinema moved on from the genre in the 80s and 90s, the keys to one of the most intriguing and inspiring female characters in movie history.
James Brown sang ”It’s a man’s man’s man’s world…,” which seems like the soundtrack that Tarantino listened to right before adapting Leonard’s novel because of the environment Jackie has to deal with. And here is where I disagree with most QT critics who argue that Tarantino likes to manipulate his female characters to the extent of reducing their power position (the example that is often pointed out is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character of Daisy Domergue in The Hateful Eight, a character that is violently mistreated, often for laughs, by her male counterparts over most of the movie’s runtime); there is no manipulation in Jackie Brown. Jackie is the one calling the shots. And she is fooling every man that steps in her way.
It’s not a coincidence that the film opens up with the melody of Bobby Womack’s street anthem ”Across 110th Street,” where one of the line reads ”Across 110th Street / Pimps trying to catch a woman that’s weak.” Grier’s flight attendant is trying to cross that very same street while avoiding the traps set by men like her coke addict ex-husband, the arms dealer she works for (Samuel L. Jackson), his associate (Robert De Niro), an ATF officer investigating her (Michael Keaton) and eventually, the bail bondsman (Robert Forster) that falls in love with her.
Let’s go back to the idea of a ”hang-out movie.” Tarantino has often said his favorite films are films where you just want to hang out with the characters as long as possible, where the viewer experiences a feeling of understanding and thrill with the characters on-screen. The movies he mentioned on numerous occasions to support this argument are two major ensemble pieces: Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and John Sturges’ The Great Escape. Both films are characterized by the presence of film stars of great magnitude such as John Wayne, Dean Martin, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, and a sense of camaraderie among these characters. Like most Hollywood movies from that era, the moments you cherish the most in Rio Bravo and The Great Escape are those where all major characters share scenes together and you get to experience the classic star power of that time.
In Jackie Brown, like in most Tarantino films, you get scenes where characters exchange lines of dialogue about regular life and the mundane activities that characterize such life. But they do it so effortlessly that you are immediately transported into another dimension, where the mundane (who can forget the conversation about cheeseburgers in Pulp Fiction?) becomes cinematic. In one of the first scenes of the movie, Ordell and his partner, Louis (played by Robert De Niro who is clearly having the time of his life playing a genuine fuck-up) sit in the living room, watching a TV show for gun aficionados and talking about how much money one can make off of selling guns in the US. The atmosphere is so genuine, as well as the conversation, and most importantly, each character fits perfectly the reality that Tarantino has created for them. That is what sets QT apart from every one else.
Think of all the times you told yourself or a friend while exiting a cinema theater, ”I liked the movie but some of the characters just didn’t work for me,” or ”I just couldn’t buy into that character, you know?” That is not the case with Tarantino. His world, and whatever follows afterwards, like the story or the main plot of the film and the twists and turns that happen along the way, are completely dependent on the characters that inhabit it. And even though most characters that appear in QT’s filmography seem to be so over the top (just think of Samuel L. Jackson’s ridiculous ponytail in Jackie Brown) they remain grounded in the film’s reality and are, oddly enough, fully believable from a viewer’s perspective.
Tarantino’s fetish for weird, over-the-top appearances (did anyone forget the gimp in Pulp Fiction? or Eli Roth’s skull-crushing Bear Jew in Inglourious Basterds?) comes with total commitment to the character’s development that include the character’s origins, motivations and flaws.
An example of this in Jackie Brown is De Niro’s character of Louis Garza, a man with an absurd horseshoe moustache who’s just been released from prison for bank robbery. The whole irony of the film works around the fact that Garza is incredibly stupid and has a hard time managing the simplest of things, including hanging up a telephone. Yet, even with the little screen-time this character has, Tarantino paints Garza as a deeply proud criminal who does not tolerate insults (eventually resulting in his downfall) despite his constant shortcomings as the associate to the movie’s main villain. When someone insults his intelligence and questions his criminal record, Louis is genuinely hurt. At each rewatch, I find myself pitying this idiot more and more as I figure he is just having great difficulty adapting to the life of a free man. In other words, even though he appears as this clownish figure, a supporting sidekick meant to deliver the laughs and be the butt of the joke, De Niro’s Garza reveals himself to be a deeply troubled character. This is screenwriting 101.
To end it here, I chose Jackie Brown to make my argument because it is one of the few works by Tarantino that is not wrapped up in some sort of genre (unlike his later work that ranges from martial arts cinema, to war movies and westerns) and thus, allows most viewers to easily grasp the essence of what Tarantino is all about. Despite it being an adaptation of a famous novel, the writer-director and Hollywood native manages to do wonders in terms of character-building. The interactions always feel genuine, the motivations always seem real and instinctive, and the world these characters inhabit is as palpable as they come.
Nobody knows if this is the end of the road for Tarantino. According to his retirement policy he still has one movie left in the tank after the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but just like with the twists in his movies, QT is a bold, unpredictable provocateur. Whatever path he’ll choose, it will make sense. Judging his work has always been difficult, and critics have always found pleasure in targeting his use of language, blood and violence, but despite all of this noise, Tarantino is one of the few people in the business who has remained true to his vision, sometimes even going a little bit over the top (not that it is a surprise by now), and for that, as a viewer, I am extremely grateful. Over the years I have had my own doubts about some of his movies; The Hateful Eight irritated me, Kill Bill annoyed me, Death Proof bored me, Inglourious Basterds rubbed me the wrong way on my first watch, and yet here I am, genuinely saddened at the thought of a cinema deprived of QT’s hang-out movies. If this is Tarantino’s last dance, it’s been groovy.
There is a scene in Sam Mendes’ Jarhead from 2005, where a helicopter flies over a group of US Marines busy digging into the hard, oil-covered desert earth, blasting through a set of speakers Break On Through (to the Other Side) by The Doors. Our protagonist, Tony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) looks up and says, irritated: ”That’s Vietnam music, man. Can’t we get our own fucking music?”
In that very scene we get to the core of the issue that Jarhead, a movie that upon its initial release in 2005 was deemed pointless and boring, wants us to think about. Jarhead in fact reinvented the cinematic depiction of war as we know it. Few people realized this, with Roger Ebert being one of the few critics who liked the movie and got its message. ”Jarhead sees the big picture entirely in terms of small details,” he wrote. And he was right. Indeed, Jarhead, in my opinion, did to the war genre what Goodfellas did to the gangster genre. It changed the formula for years to come, and by doing so, it made other filmmakers steer away from the genre.
Think about it, how many war movies about modern day conflict can you think of that have been made in the last fifteen years? I can only think of a few, The Hurt Locker, American Sniper and The Lone Surviver. The quality of these is arguable, sure, their agenda and the message they send even more so. Jarhead, however, was different. It talked about a new generation of soldiers. A new generation of men. It questioned and put a lot of themes into perspective.
The core of the issue, as mentioned above, is Jarhead’s persisting question of why can’t we have our own war? Its protagonists, being the sons and nephews of Vietnam veterans, arrive in Kuwait in the summer of 1990 to prove everyone that they too can write their own history. They too can make their families proud by fighting their own little war. But, to their surprise, and the viewers’ surprise as well, the war they will be part of is going to be different. It is going to be a new type of war, one we hadn’t seen up to that point.
After 9/11, Hollywood engaged in the production of extremely patriotic movies. It had to, after all, an entire nation was in mourning, and people wanted to see bravery and sacrifice. Thus, movies like Black Hawk Down, which looked at the failed US military intervention in Somalia by showing young, brave Americans fighting against a whole town of faceless Somali demons, came out, made a lot of money and went back into hiding, after having satisfied the audience’s needs.
It would take another four years for Jarhead to be released. By that time America was already engaged in its second Gulf War, having invaded Iraq two years prior. One might say that Jarhead was more relevant than ever, as questions regarding the nature of the first Gulf War in Kuwait resurfaced and awaited necessary answers. Answers that men like George Bush Jr. and Dick Cheney did not deliver.
First, let’s talk about the most important aspect of Jarhead, and namely the soldiers that are depicted in it. In the movie, a new breed of soldiers is introduced. Unlike the boys in Full Metal Jacket, who had no idea what they were getting into once they entered boot camp, the boys in Jarhead, are more than ready to go. They cannot wait to be part of a war that might just happen to define an entire generation of people. Their generation. After having had to sit through endless stories told by their grandparents about D-Day, the Pacific theater, Korea, and their fathers’ stories about Vietnam, Jarhead‘s boys want to fight their own battles and tell their sons and daughters how they went to some shithole country and fought a war to protect and serve the nation. Well, did they?
In Sam Mendes’ film, oddly enough, the Marines quite frankly don’t give a fuck about ideals. That’s the surprising aspect of it. Because, as awful, robotic and soulless as they were, Full Metal Jacket’s Marines had signed up because something deep down had spurred them to do so. After all, Joker (played by Matthew Modine), Kubrick’s protagonist, was a politically engaged pacifist.
In Jarhead, however, the ideals are gone; this is a generation that witnessed first-hand the effects of Vietnam and Watergate, and thus saw where ideals get you (answer: in a worse place than before). No, the soldiers in Jarhead, although nicknamed jarheads because of their supposedly bald skulls resembling empty jars, are pretty smart boys, aware of the circumstances and of the war America had gotten itself into this time. In fact, one of the Marines, a young Texas kid named Kruger is the first one to question their motives going into Kuwait: ”You think we’re here for what? They got their fat hands in Arab oil. That’s why we’re here, to protect their profits.” Everyone around him stays silent, but the looks are of men who know the reality of the situation; they’ve seen it before, on TV, in newspapers, hell, their own president, Bush Sr., addressed these concerns when he publicly stated ”In our country, I know that there are fears of another Vietnam. This will not be another Vietnam.”
But words don’t matter to these kids. These kids want to fight. They’ve seen death before unlike any other generation before them. Death in video-games, movies, shows. Death is everywhere. Their reference points are The Terminator and Rambo, for crying out loud. Their idols are Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris. During training camp, they spend entire afternoons rewatching Apocalypse Now and the Ride of the Valkyries sequence, cheering ”Get some! Fuck yeah!” and pumping their fists in excitement as the choppers riddle the Vietnamese village with missiles and machine-gun fire. They, too, want to experience that rush, that adrenaline everyone’s been talking about; they want to experience it first-hand by squeezing the trigger themselves.
And so off they go. After months of excruciating training, after, similarly to Full Metal Jacket, having been turned into machines and experts in the art of taking someone’s life be it from long range, like our protagonist Swofford who’s an elite sniper, or from up close with a knife or even a fucking helmet, the boys are off to fight their war. However, unlike in Full Metal Jacket, where as soon as Marines hit the ground in ‘Nam they find themselves engaged with the enemy, the skills they’ve learned being put to an immediate test, in Jarhead training continues even on the front lines.
They dig, they go on patrol, they throw hang grenades and learn to detect mines beneath the rocky surface of the Kuwaiti desert. They clean their weapons, learn about the effects of nerve gas and train some more. And as they do so, the testosterone builds up, their thirst for blood increases. Some will be so desperate for some sort of conflict that they will go off to shoot some poor farmer’s camel. Just for the pleasure of it. Just because this war is unlike anything they imagined it to be and they need that rush. They need to feel accomplished.
And yes, it would have been tempting for Mendes, the director, to steer away from the source material that is Swofford’s book of the same title. It would have been a perfect example of Hollywood messing with reality, had Mendes included some sort of action sequence in this movie. And yet he doesn’t. Jarhead sticks to the tyranny of a soldier’s routine. Jarhead‘s war, as described best by Swofford himself in a voice-over narration, is one long masturbating session. You follow the motions in the hope that eventually, something will happen. But that something is a long way away. The soldiers keep masturbating. They masturbate, play football, go on patrol, masturbate, sleep, dig, go on patrol, and yes, masturbate some more. Meanwhile, their war is coming to a slow, predictable end, slipping through their fingers like the sand they have to wade through day in and day out.
Finally, let’s talk about war itself. Kubrick’s war in Paths of Glory was the first instance of realization in the cinematic world, unlike its predecessors such as John Wayne’s Sands of Iwo Jima and Gary Cooper’s Sergeant York that glamorized a soldier’s sacrifice, that perhaps governments act in their own interest, often inflicting pain and suffering on the people that serve the country’s cause. Coppola followed suit by making Apocalypse Now, where for the first time soldiers were portrayed as confused lunatics sent on suicide missions by their superiors just to come back with a couple of medals and an enemy death ratio that would satisfy the officials in Washington and give the country something to cheer about.
And then there is Jarhead and a war that, despite being known for having introduced live news coverage from CNN, went on to become the epitome of a faceless war against a faceless enemy. Swofford’s breakdown at the sound of the Doors’ song is a testament to a war that passed by somewhat unnoticed by the public. Nobody was there to give it an identity, a sound, a visual cue, anything. It was just a war in a nameless desert, in a nameless country, in a nameless region of the world.
One could say that Mendes’ film is focused on man’s inherent quest for meaning. Stripped of ideals and values, these titular jarheads go off into the desert to find out, more than anything else, if they have what it takes to make their families proud. Having been raised by fathers with PTSD, they march across no man’s land just so that they can come back home and break that silence, and say ”Yeah, I felt it, too. Now, I understand.” And that’s where the tragedy of Jarhead lies. These boys left everything behind, including their girlfriends, new-born sons and daughters, pregnant wives, just to experience war, because for them, war, the most primitive act of all along with fucking, is what makes a man. But unfortunately, their war is different. Like Swofford narrates in his voice-over: ”Every war is different. Every war is the same.”
Sure, at the core of it the idea is the same; to kill and come out alive. Fight to defeat the enemy and prevail. But Swofford’s war is unlike any other war. The Gulf War is nowadays otherwise known for Operation Desert Storm, a military operation entirely based on air raids and aerial bombing. Ground soldiers meant nothing in this war. Covering the same territory that in World War I took three months to cover and in Vietnam three weeks, here took less than ten seconds. That’s the tragedy of Jarhead. This war was not meant to be fought the way these boys had imagined.
Mendes, along with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins paint a vivid, nightmarish desert setting; oil fields covered in molasses-like substance, rocky dust patches and dry, hallucination-induced flat landscapes. As our protagonists go out on patrol, we are reminded of the final scene in Full Metal Jacket, when the platoon marches down the burning ruins of Hue City, cheerfully singing the Mickey Mouse song. Out here, however, instead of the Mickey Mouse song, there is a deafening silence. There is no reference cue. There is no trademark sound. It’s all so colorless, bland. These Jarheads have suffered mental breakdowns, have been physically tested in an arid environment where, on a lucky day, you can fry an egg out in the open, have been betrayed and left hanging by their loved ones back home, and what do they have to show for it?
This is the futility of war, one can argue. It doesn’t matter if you fight to the death or you sit at the rear, gripping the barrel of your rifle with all your strength, you will still return a different person, a shattered soul. A has been, more than anything else.
Because every war is different, every war is the same.
When the late John Singleton, who passed away a week ago after battling a series of strokes, directed his first feature film, Boyz n the Hood, thus becoming the first African-American director to be nominated for an Oscar and the youngest nominee (24 years old – 22 at the time the film was shot!) in that category in the history of the prestigious awards ceremony, the public was caught off guard. It was 1991. Los Angeles was soon to become a dystopian war-zone following the 1992 Rodney King riots. LA was in the spotlight, for the wrong reasons, and here he was, a young, black film director from the streets, making a voice for himself and giving voice to those that had not had the right to have one up to that point.
It is important to keep in mind, that almost 3000 miles away, in the far away city of New York, there already was a young, black film student turned director shaking things up. His name was Spike Lee, but Spike, unlike Singleton, was interested in many things simultaneously, and often his work was filled with rage, stereotypes, regret, and most importantly, thematically it was all over the place, thus making it difficult for most everyday audiences to really grasp the world Spike was presenting to them. Do the Right Thing was Spike’s major hit, but its ferociousness, its in-your-face attitude made it somewhat inaccessible for its time. On the other hand, Boyz n the Hood, Singleton’s entry ticket to Hollywood, was easier to digest, like a personal diary made available to everyone. And that is what I want to focus on: how John Singleton made the black experience of growing up in South Central Los Angeles accessible to audiences.
The black experience in the East Coast had been covered in great detail in crime dramas often disguised as blaxploitation films going all the way back to the 70s, when all of a sudden films that would normally be told from a white perspective were taken apart and reconstructed from the angle of a minority. Films like Coffy or Shaft introduced to worldwide audiences proud members of the black film community such as Pam Grier, Gordon Parks and Richard Roundtree that went on to become cult figures in the genre. But, unfortunately, that’s all it was – a genre. And as fun and enjoyable as they were, such films, neatly wrapped in style and action, often failed to convey a larger message about the actual circumstances these characters found themselves in.
Thus, by the end of the 80s, when producers started to take more chances on cheaper, independent films over blockbusters, younger talent emerged – film students from a minority, a marginalized community, like John Singleton that had stories to tell, who insisted on these stories to be told truthfully, were finally offered a chance. This meant only John Singleton could direct Boyz n the Hood, a hood film about a group of young men growing up in South Central LA, a territory infested with drugs, violence, police brutality and street gangs. It was time to shine a light on the black experience in the West Coast, where slowly but surely, black culture was starting to emerge from the ashes mostly through rap music with artists such as NWA and Tupac leading the way.
In one of the first scenes of the movie, Singleton makes the perfect introduction as a black filmmaker; Tre Styles, our protagonist, at this point an 11-year-old boy, after showing boredom and making unnecessary remarks in class, is challenged by his teacher, a pretty white redhead, to stand up in front of the classroom and conduct his own lecture. Young Tre without a second thought rises to his feet and proceeds to walk up to a big world map. He points to the African continent and says ”This is where y’all are from. Where everybody’s from.” The class is in shock. What is this kid talking about? We’re not from Africa, we’re from South Central. Singleton immediately turns the tables around and proves to be in the driver’s seat. This scene is his announcement that the movie that you’re watching is not meant to be watched while munching on popcorn – it is meant to be seen with an understanding, because you might learn something new, something challenging that you, just like the teacher and the rest of the classroom, did not see coming.
Another aspect that makes Boyz n the Hood accessible is its simplicity in storytelling and the way Singleton uses as a clear reference point Rob Reiner’s hit movie from 1986, Stand by Me, only this time, the director turns the story of four socially-marginalized kids from white-washed Oregon into the story of four black boys from South Central. In Stand by Me the turning point takes place when one of the boys asks, ”You guys wanna go see a dead body?” and the frightened gang follows the friend to the where the body is hidden. In this case, the dead body represents a secret, and a deadly one too, as it is not supposed to be revealed to anyone because then the killer might come out of hiding.
In Boyz, however, when one of the boys, Dooky, asks ”Y’all wanna see a dead body?” the others casually reply ”Yeah. Okay.” When the bullet-riddled, blood-soaked body is revealed to them, they impassively look at it, with the only remark being that it stinks. Here, a victim of a gang shooting is a trivial object, like a souvenir taken from the local context of South Central. The sight of it, even for boys aged 11 or 12, is nothing remarkable. It doesn’t evoke any feelings besides physical disgust. A dead body, unlike in Stand by Me, is no mystery, and this is the first sign of Singleton taking matters into his own hands; he introduces a brand new way of seeing things, as if to say, ”I’m supposed to feel sorry for a bullet-riddled corpse? I’ve seen worse.”
After its opening act where the characters are introduced at a young age, the film skips to seven years later, when the boys are in their late teens, and by that time, in South Central you’re expected to be a man, have a family, put bread on the table and act like a grown up. And while a director like Spike Lee is more interested in the flavor and oddity of each character, Singleton’s priority as a director is to tell a story. Most of the characters that are in Boyz resemble each other in many ways; they all have similar backgrounds, fears, regrets, but above all, they all have one goal in common – to get out of there.
Because while Spike’s Brooklyn is a place where the characters feel at home despite many threatening factors such as neighboring gangs and ”nigger-hating” police officers roaming the streets, Singleton’s LA (ranging from South Central to Compton) is a hellhole that everyone wants to run away from. Even the most basic, primitive characters such as Doughboy (wonderfully played by a young Ice Cube) have as their dream neither gangbanging, nor drinking ’till late, nor screwing the most beautiful girls in the area; their dream is to be better, to the point that they can fly out of a place where, as the opening line to the movie states ONE OUT OF EVERY TWENTY-ONE BLACK AMERICAN MALES WILL BE MURDERED IN THEIR LIFETIME. MOST WILL DIE AT HE HANDS OF ANOTHER BLACK MALE. Singleton’s characters are simple and easy to understand, driven by the same thirst to elevate themselves above life-threatening mediocrity.
Finally, Singleton’s real secret in telling this personal journey of growing up in a tough environment is his understanding of what a general audience wants in a way that will allow him to keep their attention all the way through. In other words, Singleton, unlike Spike Lee (who, lets be honest, loved to light firecrackers in people’s faces with his thought-provoking, twisted and controversial films) at the age of 22, knew exactly how to make a conventional movie, one that despite its difficult subject matter would not stir controversy but welcome viewers with open arms, broadening their vision of what it meant to really struggle in marginalized working class America.
Singleton many times argued that to him Boyz was structured like a Western, meaning it was structured like the oldest tale in the book – a tale filled with moral dilemmas, life lessons and dramatic turns that will lead to an inevitable end. Boyz does just that, with the bandits being the gangbangers that go looking for trouble as they cruise down the street and police officers making death threats to common citizens, the cowboys being the young protagonists desperately trying to take care of their loved ones and protect them from the bandits, and the wise sheriff, who in this case is represented by Tre’s father, Furious (a fantastic Laurence Fishburne), a man who watches over the neighborhood and has come to accept one absolute truth: that African-Americans need to stick together and be aware of their strength as a unit, rather than their strength as individuals.
In most Westerns, the cowboys eventually have to accept their darker survival instincts if they want to defeat the bandits, yet in Boyz Singleton desperately fights this convention, ultimately making his characters suffer and choose different approaches in dealing with the same nagging problem, which is the burden of life in the neighborhood. The question whether a cowboy will become a bandit depends on many factors, and Singleton makes sure to highlight each one of them: love and supervision from relatives, education, a balanced sense of justice, one’s own values and priorities. Like any good director, or artist for that matter, Singleton does not try to put all of his eggs in one basket; instead he makes sure to truthfully depict the many faces of South Central and the many ways one can go about living one’s life in such awful circumstances. This may seem like the obvious thing to do, but numerous movies that thematically tackle street life, street crime and the margins of any society prefer to take the easy way out and put the blame on the system, on a higher power, on the evil eye that watches over us. In Boyz, the 22-year-old film director doesn’t follow suit: he furiously rows up against the stream because the story deserves to be told the right way.
After the movie’s incredible financial and critical success, Singleton’s career did not take off the way everyone imagined. The films he went on to make, from the likes of street melodramas like Poetic Justice to mindless blockbusters like 2 Fast 2 Furious, did not reflect his incredible skill as a director and storyteller, but that is even more of a reason to celebrate the nature of Boyz n the Hood, a hood film that allowed audiences from all over the world to truly grasp a (small) part of the black experience in modern-day America.
Let’s talk about women. Women on screen. Most of the time when we think of women in movies we have a clear image, a predefined vision of what a cinematic woman should be like, look like and act like. And when the tables are turned, and we finally get a performance that does not reflect a woman that way, think of Meryl Streep in Kramer vs Kramer as the quiet, docile yet ruthless wife that asks for child custody, or Charlize Theron in Monster as a prostitute that goes on a killing spree after having been molested one too many times, the general public’s response is to reward them. Usually with an Oscar. But that is a rough sketch of the overall picture. But what if I told you that once upon a time there was a director whose entire filmography revolved around unconventional, in a way uncinematic women? What if I told you that he was a director who revolutionized the image of a woman on screen? I am talking about a filmmaker who understood women in all their complexity and embraced everything about them when making a movie. Often times he’d paint the female protagonist as the hero and simultaneously as the antagonist, too. I am talking about John Cassavetes and I want to dedicate this post to the character of Mabel Longhetti in his 1974 effort, A Woman Under the Influence.
Initially conceived as a play, A Woman Under the Influence quickly became a screenplay for a movie with the same title, as Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes’ wife and lifetime collaborator (appearing in 11 of his movies), felt that playing the character of Mabel would become too excruciating in the long run, as most plays are on five to eight times a week. Because yes, Mabel Longhetti is a mentally disturbed woman, but the mental illness is never made too explicit in the film. In fact, Cassavetes never, in all of his interviews, guest appearances and lectures, never referred to Mabel as a mentally unstable woman. To Cassavetes, Mabel was a woman who suffered many things, just like most people, and to him, that was what made her a character worthy of a movie of her own; Mabel to Cassavetes was a person that lived life with everything she had. To Mabel, every emotion is amplified, and that is also perhaps why A Woman Under the Influence is one of the most disturbing portrayals of family life ever put on screen, and perhaps why Richard Dreyfuss, in an interview following his hit movie Jaws in 1975, when asked what movie had scared him the most in the past decade or so, pointed to Cassavetes’ film, admitting that the emotional intensity of the film, the relentless focus on Mabel and her psychological journey as a mother and wife, was enough to make him vomit in exhaustion upon his return home from the movies.
So what is it that makes A Woman Under the Influence one of, if not, the greatest portrayal of a woman in the history of cinema? For starters there is Gena Rowlands, giving a career-defining performance (more about Gena in a post from 2016) as Mabel Longhetti, devoted mother of three, loyal wife of a construction worker (played by an equally powerful Peter Falk), and above all, a woman tormented by her inability to express her overwhelming love. It is in fact Cassavetes primary goal as a filmmaker to talk about love, as he often stated in some of the interviews prior to his premature death in 1989;
I have a one-track mind. That’s all I’m interested in – love. And the lack of it. When it stops. And the pain that’s caused by loss of things that are taken away from us that we really need.
And it’s true. I remember watching A Woman Under the Influence for the very first time and being highly disturbed by the display of mental illness in the movie. I couldn’t take it, and similarly to Richard Dreyfuss, I felt sick and had to pause the movie a few times just to distance myself from what was taking place in Mabel’s world. However, upon revisiting it a couple of days ago, I watched it with Cassavetes’ idea that it is a film that revolves around the weight of love and what happens when someone is sensitive, vulnerable and in love to the point that even the smallest of things will make that person go crazy and lose balance in life. Because Mabel Longhetti is exactly like that. The first scene we see her appear in, is the scene where she is getting her kids ready to go off with grandma for the weekend. Mabel runs around the driveway making sure her three children have all they need for a weekend away; she tucks in their shirts, she runs back into the house to find an extra pair of shoes, and she keeps repeating to her little joys as they get into grandma’s car ”Get your fingers in! Watch your fingers!” And when finally grandma drives off with the kids, Mabel shuts herself inside the house and starts pacing up and down the hallway, biting on her fingernails, murmuring to herself that she shouldn’t have let them go. The instances when her illness takes over are the instances where her overwhelming love does not know where to go. After a short while, Mabel asks herself in panic ”Where are the kids? Kids? Where are you?”
Mabel is most vulnerable on her own. It is then that her condition turns her into a threat, a threat mostly to herself, as she goes off into the night in search of an adventure and ends up inviting a stranger into her home (it is never made if it is a one-time thing or a repeating occurrence). Meanwhile, her husband Nick is her only life saver, her only certainty in a world that otherwise could be considered her greatest danger, as the immense metropolis that is Los Angeles is bound to push her off-balance into free-fall. When Nick is not home, and that is quite often as his work demands a full 24-hour availability, Mabel is on her own, squaring off with her demons. She indulges in weird moments of self-harm, punching herself in the head, making faces in front of the mirror, drinking hard liquor, smoking packs of cigarettes, running up and down the house in search of something she could her pour love into, but as Cassavetes himself said about how he tackles the theme of love in his movies; ”To have a philosophy is to know how to love, and to know where to put it. […] What everybody needs is a way to say where and how can I love? Can I be in love so I can live with some degree of peace?” Most of the time Cassavetes movies do not deliver an answer to this question. Yet, in A Woman Under the Influence, this very quest to achieve a degree of peace through love is the main focal point of Mabel’s condition.
When Nick comes home from work with a group of hungry co-workers, we see Mabel spring to her feet in excitement: it is time for to express her love for her husband by preparing a wonderful meal for the numerous guests that Nick considers friends. As Mabel sits in silence, looking at the hungry and tired men devouring home-cooked spaghetti with sauce, we can see glimmers of utter happiness. These are the moments that Mabel lives for, these are the instances when she is at her best, and yet… and yet the condition kicks in. The love that Mabel has for people, for her husband, her family, the family’s friends and relatives, is too strong and is bound to go off any minute. In this scene, for example, Mabel becomes friendly with some of Nick’s co-workers, too friendly, to the point that she embarrasses her husband and makes the guests uncomfortable. When they leave, everything dies down, including Mabel.
If Mabel could have one wish from a genie, that wish would be to be able to put her arms around all the people she loves and keep them there, as close to herself as possible. But that is not how the world works in a Cassavetes film as Mabel is soon deemed to be dangerous for her loved ones (she is eventually put in a mental institution for six months); the danger she poses lies in the affectionate way she plays with her children and her children’s friends, in the way she wants to satisfy everybody that enters her home, the way she maniacally runs up and down Hollywood Boulevard asking strangers for the time as she waits for the school bus to arrive and return her kids safely. It’s as if the most ordinary things make her seem crazy in the eyes of others. But to Cassavetes, the film’s writer and director, this is the essence of a woman; forget the beauty and sex-appeal, the essence of a female protagonist lies in her quirks, her flaws, her habits, her dreams, ambitions and regrets. Mabel is full of them. Cassavetes criticism of women’s depiction in movies is key in analyzing A Woman Under the Influence;
I’m very worried about the depiction of women on the screen. It’s gotten worse than ever and it’s related to their being either high- or low-class concubines, and the only question is when or where they will go to bed, with whom, and how many. There’s nothing to do with the dreams of women, or of woman as the dream, nothing to do with the quirky part of her, the wonder of her.
In Cassavetes’ brilliant psychological domestic drama we experience a woman. An ordinary woman who is not successful, who doesn’t have a job, who doesn’t go out shopping, who doesn’t do things for pleasure or out of interest. Her world, and her experience comes from inside, because Mabel is crazy in the eyes of others, but when she looks in the mirror, she doesn’t see a crazy person; she sees an emotionally rich person, who through a vast range of emotions that can quickly turn happiness into fear, fear into anger, anger into pure joy, confusion into bliss, is desperately trying to find a way to fit into the environment she is forced to be part of. Her body is tied to the physical world, but her mind isn’t. Mabel wants to live for others, through others; in numerous scenes she simulates the behavior of her children because it is her understanding that a mother raising children should feel the same things as her children. And so she dances, she whistles, she races down the street, she makes faces and puts on costumes because her children deserve to be at the center of her attention. And when her husband brings around his friends she finds fitting to emulate his attitude, that of a tough, working man, a macho figure, a bread winner and the head of the household. What comes off as ridicule to Nick is Mabel’s way of telling him, Look how much I love you. Look how much I care about you. Look how much I admire you.
To end this piece, Bo Harwood, the film’s music composer said that to him the score to A Woman Under the Influence is ”basically about love […] about loving somebody, loving your family, loving them no matter what,” which is a fitting conclusion, considering that Mabel is full of imperfections but so are the people around her, above all Nick, her husband, who at times reveals himself to be just as crazy as his wife. Then you might say, well if this is about love and loving somebody, what does the concept of a cinematic woman have to do with this post? To which I’ll reply, everything. To me, and famed critics like Roger Ebert, Mabel represents Cassavetes himself, and his experience with dealing with love, family, betrayal and hardship, and that is why, the portrayal of this particular woman is the most accurate, complete and telling I have ever seen; Mabel represents everything that we might want her to represent. Her condition is the accumulation of values, emotions, stories, incidents and thoughts that we all have, that we all share. That’s what makes her so multidimensional, so unconventional, so beautifully unique, and that is also why cinema would never be the same after the film’s release. Cassavetes and Rowlands, in other words, together revolutionized what a woman can do in a film, what she can stand for and what she can bring to the art form that is cinema.
Cinema has always represented an escape from reality, a place where science did not apply, where superheros were in fact regular citizens and where love beat them all. After all, we still hear some people say: ”Life’s not like the movies!” as if to say that life is too difficult and too serious to be encapsulated into an art form such as film. However, people seem to forget that movies can indeed encapsulate the gravity, the struggle and the difficulty of what we are faced with everyday.
Enter satires. From the very beginning, satire was meant to turn life upside down by presenting audiences with a grotesque yet faithful representation of the actual state of affairs. Think of Chaplin’s bold masterpiece about fascism, The Great Dictator, and how it was used to send across a message of hope, when hope was nowhere to be seen on the streets of war-torn Europe. Think of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove as it tried to make sense of the chaos and absurdity of two superpowers pushing each other toward the very edge of destruction, for what? Think of Sidney Lumet’s Network, and how the protagonist Howard Beale desperately tried to warn regular citizens of the danger that modern-day media represent. In short, satire has been with us for an extremely long time, yet for a while, most notably post 9/11, cinema preferred to remain silent and let facts do the talking (e.g. Michael Moore’s documentaries and 60 minutes) after such a great, unspeakable tragedy took place in the land of the free and home of the brave. It looked like Hollywood and the rest of the world were dried out, nothing was going for them as audiences went back to blockbusters and scary movies. Everyone was afraid to laugh. What followed next is up to interpretation. I like to think that Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street shook things up, introduced a fresh initiative and led to the emergence of a multitude of satires based on real life events, such as The Big Short and War Dogs. Thus finally, people rediscovered the fun and the tragicomic truth that lies at the core of such kind of satire, where everything is exaggerated for storytelling purposes, anything goes and yet everything makes sense, because life is just like the movies, isn’t it?
Obviously, once Hollywood discovers a certain formula, they like to stick to it, and satire, unlike so many other genres, such as action, thriller, horror, cannot be subjected to a formula, because the fun and the wit of satire is the juice of its execution, the unpredictability of it, the swagger and the bravado a filmmaker possesses in the face of the cruel reality from which a certain story is drawn. And here’s why I intend to pick two recent satires, one of them being very good, the other one being a poor, mishandled, misjudged collection of vignettes, because satire is a genre that is too smart to become formulaic, too important to become just another box office attraction. Enter the excellent The Death of Stalin from 2017, and the not-so-excellent Vice from last year.
When Donald Trump was elected US President, Hollywood decided that now is the big chance to rediscover itself, and that everything that would come out of its vaults, be it 2016’s Get Out, 2017’s The Shape of Water and, in fact, last year’s Vice, is to be considered meaningful and looked upon as a critique on a broader scale. Get Out‘s horror tropes were meant to represent the beneath-the-surface racism that plagues America; The Shape of Water toyed with the idea of modern-day xenophobia and chauvinism; and finally Vice was to be analyzed as a big statement about how America’s past is a thing of the present. While Vice made millions, Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin struggled box-office-wise, its appeal lost due to the simple fact that it told a story of many, many, many decades ago in the far, unreachable territory of what was once referred to as the Soviet Union. And yet, while Vice struggled to depict a coherent, complete and humorous retelling of America’s most infamous vice-president aka Dick Cheney, The Death of Stalin succeeded in telling the story of the days following Stalin’s death, encapsulating absolute truths about politics, power and populism. Here’s how and why.
First of all, time frames matter in satire. Most satires do not cross a time frame of a day or two, a week or two, sometimes reaching a maximum of a month or so (Wolf of Wall Street being one of the few exceptions). To go beyond that means risking everything for the benefit of reality. But satire is not about reality, right? Satire is about a twisted version of reality.
Well, this is where Vice fails. McKay’s previous effort from 2015, the innovative The Big Short, a fun roller-coaster ride that made the most of the financial crisis of 2008, presented us with two time frames; days leading up to the crisis, and the days following the crisis. It worked because instead of focusing on a general story, it focused on certain key, real life characters and their involvement in the world of finance at the time when the world froze and exploded into a million pieces. Vice, unfortunately and most importantly, approaches the subject matter of Dick Cheney in the wrong fashion. See, McKay instead of, for example, focusing solely on Cheney’s actions post 9/11, decided to make a biopic on the man, which means he decided to compress a man’s personal as well as political life spanning over 50 years into a two-hour satire. This results in a humongous amount of unnecessary information that is neither truthful, funny or provocative. Who cares if Dick Cheney drank as a student? Who cares if he was arrested multiple times drunk-driving at the of 21? Who cares if he was not popular in college? What audiences care about is seeing the juice of the action, in other words, why the hell was this man given so much power at an advanced stage in his career? Why was he so special following one of the darkest days in the war on terror?
Meanwhile, The Death of Stalin knows exactly how utilize its time frame of the day leading up to Stalin’s sudden death and the days following the great leader’s passing and the chaotic re-distribution of power amongst Soviet Union’s Central Committee.
Ianucci, an expert in modern-day satire with the likes of In the Loop and Veep under his belt, uses such a limited time frame to its full effect, making every single day that passes weigh double. We, the audience, begin to feel the pressure that our protagonists feel as the mourning nation awaits a new leader and a functioning state of things. In this case, time-related pressure leads our political protagonists such as Beria, Khrushchev and Malenkov to the most hilarious and extreme situations in order to gain advantage over one another. And while he’s at it, Ianucci does not deviate from historical accuracy; Beria’s reign of terror following Stalin’s death as he sided with the new interim Premier, Malenkov, and the coup that resulted in Beria’s trial are all in here, but instead of stretching the time frame to realistic proportions, Ianucci compresses it to increase the unpredictability of our characters’ actions.
Second point: well-crafted characters go a long way in satire. Even if the cast of characters is big, their depth matters, a lot. Think of Dr. Strangelove and the characters that inhabit the Cold-War inspired cartoonish universe of Kubrick’s imagination. Although there’s plenty of clichés within each one of them, Kubrick’s characters are lively and recognizable, be it the bomber crew lead by the Southern major King Kong, or the war room’s team composed of the vulgar and patriotic General Buck Turgidson, the vulnerable and confused President Muffley and the neurotic and sociopathic Dr. Strangelove. The key element of these characters is that they are unique and memorable. Obviously, when you are dealing with real life characters, things get tougher for a writer and filmmaker. But satire is meant to take life by its horns, and tame it, twisting it around as anything goes and rules can be broken. The Death of Stalin does exactly this. With little to no evidence of the personality of the likes of Beria, Khrushchev, Malenkov, Molotov or Stalin’s children, Vasily and Svetlana, Ianucci has a free range of possibilities, a writer’s dream-induced playground. Beria becomes a savage, power-hungry monster, Malenkov is a blabbering idiotic yes-man, Khrushchev a rational, ambitious leader, Molotov a naive, indoctrinated child, the little Stalins spoiled, terrified brats that will do anything to keep their family name alive. The cast of characters is much larger, but the point stays; the audience is aware of each character’s traits, and therefore, has a vague idea of what to expect, especially in a race of who’s going to be the next Soviet leader.
What does Vice do instead? Nothing. McKay limits himself to paper-thin, Wikipedia information about real life characters, including Cheney himself, his wife, Bush Jr., Donald Rumsfeld, and more of the American crème de la crème. And here’s also where time frames and character depth collide. By extending the time frame, stretching it over 40-50 years, McKay is forced to introduce an endless number of minor characters along the way, preventing our most relevant ones to make any sort of progress in the viewer’s eye, limiting them to their physical presence. And that’s the main problem. Christian Bale’s depiction of Cheney never goes beyond its physical characteristics put forth by some excellent make-up. His beer belly, the balding scalp, the imposing, towering figure are the only memorable elements of an otherwise undercooked protagonist. Look, we get it: Cheney was a mysterious, heavily scrutinized political actor who for the most part of his life tried to stay away from the cameras, sticking to the more ‘undercover’ side of American politics. But so were Beria, Malenkov, Khruschev. Instead of going all out and actually having some fun with his protagonists, McKay seems intimidated by the stained legacy of the Cheneys and Bushes. However, satire, dear McKay, is supposed to tear these legacies apart.
Did Chaplin hesitate when he made fun of Mussolini and Hitler as the bloodiest conflict of the century was reaching its second year?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, satire is all about critique and provoking the audience. Just as the Truman Show did with its final scene that included a clear breaking of the fourth-wall as Jim Carrey stared into the camera and said; ”In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night,” laughing in the face of the all-powerful eye, satire, at the end of the day, is about making a statement that speaks to us, so that we, the audience members, can go home, think about it, and come to the conclusion, that yes, indeed, we have learned something, something valuable and relevant for our time. In the case of The Death of Stalin we are left with a shot of Khrushchev sitting in a theater audience as the main leader of the Soviet Union, with Brezhnev sitting a couple of rows behind looking on and smiling, as if to say that this vicious cycle of power struggle is going to continue, that the war between egos is endless and the victims of it are always the poorest members in the audience, the civilians that shed blood, the ones that have to sacrifice their livelihoods for these ego wars to continue. Meanwhile, after two-hours of chaotic editing, intertwining story-lines, odd freeze frames and misplaced voice-overs, Vice comes to a point where the only solution to end this mess is to have Bale’s Cheney address the audience face-to-face, have him staring into the camera, justifying his own actions in the name of America’s safety and common good. To what effect? Here’s a movie that tells the story of this monstrous villain, responsible for the US involvement in Iraq, for bombing millions of innocent people, for torturing and keeping these torture practices secret in Guantanamo, for signing deals that benefited the elite instead of regular citizens, and somehow manages to end in such a way that allows this man to justify himself, thus going against its own initiative.
While The Death of Stalin shows the repercussions of evil, Vice shows the glamor of it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is not only bad satire. That is bad filmmaking.
Last time around I talked about Michael Mann (here) I focused on the Chicago native’s ability to entertain audiences with the sheer brilliance of his visual style. What I didn’t do, and what I plan on doing now, upon concluding a marathon of his entire filmography (starting from his 1981 directorial debut, Thief, and ending with his recent misfire about the hacking underworld, Blackhat), is to have a look at what really lies at the core of the director’s body of work. We all know and love him for his memorable camerawork, his hyper realistic shootouts resulting in some of the best sound design to ever grace the silver screen, his ability to capture the beauty of big cities at night, be it Miami, Los Angeles or Chicago, and his overall rediscovery of the crime genre. Yet, oddly enough, when asked about this idea of his films belonging to the crime genre, Mann answered coldly ”I don’t make genre films, I make dramas,” which is a valid response considering his films, if studied closely, are all about relationships and love. That’s it.
Relationships are hard to define, and most of the time cinema, especially Hollywood productions, have a hard time creating convincing, realistic portrayals of two people interacting with each other in an intimate way. How many times do we hear an audience member walk out of a film saying ”Yeah, I just didn’t buy that whole love story” or ”That was okay, I just wish there was more to A and B’s relationship, you know?” Better yet, how many times have we seen in the last decade or so, films that made us truly care about characters’ relationships? Very few, I’d say. And that’s why Mann is a fascinating director to watch; most of his films are considered macho features, male-oriented with male protagonists that are either on the good or the bad side of the law, cops and robbers, vigilantes and crooks, honest workers and corrupt yes-men. At first sight, female characters are few and their screen time is considerably limited compared to their male counterparts. However, their importance is priceless. One could even go as far as to say Mann’s male characters depend on women. Without these women, Mann’s protagonists have nothing going for them.
Let’s start with Thief, the story about a jewel thief who gets into trouble with a mob boss, where Frank (a post Godfather Jimmy Caan) is desperately trying to make sense of his own life. Amidst all the violence, all the robbing, all the swearing and drinking, there is a very tender story about a man who, raised as an orphan, uneducated, an ex-convict, wants to have something to show for his own existence. When he’s not stealing diamonds, he’s busy chasing Jessie, a young, timid restaurant clerk. Soon, Frank builds his whole life around his wife and child and they become the focal point of the movie itself. In other words, what initially set out to be a stone-cold crime flick about a man who finds himself in a tight spot slowly turns into a story about a man and his family, his everything, who must escape the violent reality they live in. Jessie is Frank’s ticket to safety, proof that there is something truly worth fighting for.
Skip to Manhunter, 1986, where the protagonist is a straight arrow, a former FBI man, Will Graham, whose life has been a mess ever since he caught the most dangerous criminal in recent history – Dr. Hannibal Lecktor. Here, Mann places his protagonist in a spot where he is forced to walk a fine line between being the antagonist, as his method of investigation is based on getting inside the mind of psychopaths and serial killers (which eventually resulted in him ending up in the psych ward for some time), and that of a hero, hailed by newspapers as the man who stopped Lecktor and looked upon by his son as this imposing, admirable father figure. Manhunter is thriller 101, the precursor to every other major bloody Hollywood flick (think Silence of the Lambs, Se7en or even Gone Girl), mainly due to the fact it is very much aware of what makes tragedy worth caring about; Will’s job is likely to put his family at risk, as his wife keeps telling him to back off and to not get involved with another serial killer case; he eventually soon becomes responsible for the fate of his loved ones. In other words, his family and his relationship with his wife is the only link that separates the investigator from total insanity, resulting in the following tagline ”Enter the mind of a serial killer… you may never come back.” It is not a coincidence that at the start of the film we see Graham, along with his son, build a wire fence around a spot on the beach where turtle eggs have been laid; the film is more about the constant anxiety of protecting our dear ones than it is about catching some psycho killer as one would deduce by reading the movie’s premise.
In 1995 Mann made arguably his greatest film to date, his magnum opus, Heat, where the lives of a bank robber and a cop chasing him get intertwined. What follows is a legendary game of cat and mouse, of shootouts, action and violence, but at the core of it there’s the element of relationships all over again. Love as the ultimate downfall and salvation. It is difficult to talk about this movie as every time I rewatch it I notice something different, things seem to align in a new, fresh way each time I press play. The premise to Heat is the famous quote ”Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner,” with most of the characters ultimately fighting off this strict mantra, their feelings clashing with their profession, be it that of the criminal whose duty it is to leave everything behind once the cops start chasing you, or the policeman whose duty it is to leave everything behind once the chase is on. After all, when I think of love in Michael Mann’s Heat, I think of two relationships; Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd’s and Al Pacino’s and Diane Venora’s. Both relationships are troubled for different reasons. Val Kilmer’s character is a bank robber who ends up losing all the money he makes gambling in Las Vegas and Reno, while Ashley Judd’s character is an ex-call girl turned housewife who wants some stability in her young, newly wed life. There is a tragic disconnect between the two, with Kilmer admitting to De Niro’s character ”The sun rises and sets with her, man,” when asked if he’d be able to cut off ties with her if the situation required it. The two want to make things work, at all costs, but they don’t have the right ingredients. They want to be better, but they can’t. Or simply don’t know how.
On the other side of the spectrum, there is an entirely different level of disconnect. Al Pacino’s character, Vincent Hanna, is at his third marriage, and this one is going bad too because again, he cannot seem to get through to his wife. His work absorbs him, sucks him dry, and his wife does not accept this. The two of them, unlike Kilmer and Judd’s young couple, are both starting to face the fact that things will most likely never work out; both are moving on in years, both are unable to function like normal human beings (she’s high on prescription drugs all the time, while he’s addicted to the sound of his work beeper) and both seem reluctant to face this problem together, as a couple. Incompetent when it comes to family matters, Al Pacino’s Hanna is convinced that relationships are nothing more but a burden in a man’s life and yet, at the same time, he keeps coming back to them. In the celebrated diner scene where Hanna and Neil (De Niro) meet for the first time, Pacino admits ”My life’s a disaster zone. I got a stepdaughter so fucked up because her real father’s this large-type asshole. I got a wife, we’re passing each other on the down-slope of a marriage – my third – because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. That’s my life.” Once again, like in Mann’s previous works, what is at stake is not money, fame, success or anything of the sort; it’s the relationship. Each character seems to do everything for the sake of saving/maintaining a relationship. if you get killed running out of a bank, you won’t see your wife again. Same thing happens if a bad guy puts one in your brain. Love, once again, is a man’s downfall and simultaneously, his only salvation.
The final two movies I want to mention are Mann’s ode to machismo and action cinema, namely his remake of the original television series, Miami Vice and his quite recent venture into gangster territory, Public Enemies. In the formal we witness as Crockett, an undercover police detective, flirts with a woman from the other side of the fence, an accountant for the number one drug kingpin of Miami that Crockett happens to be investigating. In the latter film, John Dillinger, America’s most notorious bank robber of the 30s, afraid of getting killed with nothing to show for his own life (just like Frank in Thief) gets involved with a young desk clerk, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Both films, although dealing with opposite sides of the law, show two desperate men trying to find comfort in love. One objective. Whether it is because the world has gotten too violent (as Crockett witnesses one killing too many)…
…or too modern (as Dillinger is faced with a new reality where robbing banks is a thing from the past), love, and relationships yet again come into play and slowly but surely become the focal points and the dramatic anchors of both films. Both relationships are daring, life and death situations but somehow, our protagonists, one being a smart, perhaps the smartest undercover cop in all of Florida, and the other being the smartest bank robber at the time, are willing to take a huge risk by potentially compromising their ‘business’ with something as fragile as a relationship with someone they barely know anything about. And yet… and yet somehow it all makes sense, because Mann knows how to sell it; love becomes an indispensable element of each protagonist’s arch, as it can lead to many things; failure, exposure, damaged reputation or even, as in Dillinger’s case, death. It all comes to full circle, and at the end of the day, the sun rises and sets with her.